The kitchen in the penthouse suite was large, white, and spotless, with sleek machines taking up the majority of the counter space. Peggy recognized the microwave and the blender, but the others were entirely foreign to her.
Pepper had brought takeout in large brown paper bags. The names of the dishes weren't anything Peggy was familiar with, but the food itself was simple and delicious: chicken roasted in spices, flat bread, buttery rice with peas and carrots, soft potatoes in lemon sauce. There was far too much food for just the three of them—though Natasha certainly seemed determined to make a decent showing, folding food into her mouth efficiently and noiselessly, as though she didn't know when she might expect to eat again.
Pepper was a polite, even congenial hostess: asking Peggy how school was going, talking at length about her own college experience. She didn't mention Tony, or the hospital. She seemed quite collected, if slightly on the manic side; Peggy recognized battlefield nerve when she saw it.
Natasha, by contrast, said very little, despite Pepper's attempts to include her in the conversation.
While they were picking at the remaining food, a man appeared in the doorway to the kitchen. His filthy clothes and unkempt appearance marked him as a vagrant, but Pepper stood and walked across the room to greet him. She offered him a place at the table and set a plate in front of him—she seemed more at ease when she had a task to complete, a feeling with which Peggy was all too familiar.
"You smell like a sewer," said Natasha to the newcomer, without preamble.
His mouth was already crammed full of food, but he ducked his head in acquiescence.
"And you need a haircut," said Pepper, somewhat more affectionately, before crossing the kitchen to fiddle with an expensive-looking stainless steel contraption.
Privately, Peggy couldn't help agreeing with both assessments.
He nodded again, with a rueful smile. "Strangers wielding scissors near my face make me edgy." At the word 'strangers,' both he and Natasha glanced in Peggy's direction.
"I beg your pardon," said Peggy, automatically. "Margaret Carter." She eschewed the traditional handshake in favour of a polite nod.
"Bruce Banner," the newcomer replied, nodding back.
Pepper placed four mugs in the centre of the table, along with cream and sugar—apparently the machine, which was now buzzing, produced coffee.
Bruce was looking at Peggy thoughtfully. She suddenly recalled where she'd heard his name before—this was the colleague Tony had consulted about her dramatic little experiment in rapid healing.
"How long will you be here, Bruce?" Pepper was asking. She placed a hand on Natasha's shoulder, presumably to signal her presence as she leaned over her to place the coffee carafe on the table. It was a gesture that spoke, if not of friendship, of some long familiarity.
"Not sure," replied Bruce. "This is Fury's party, I'm just a guest."
"Not even that," said Natasha, unexpectedly. "We're not the guests. We're the caterers and the custodians." She poured herself a large cup of coffee, and sipped it without making any alterations.
"And I'm the guy they call in at the end of the night when they want the room cleared out," Bruce retorted, helping himself to coffee as well.
"Peggy, would you prefer tea?" asked Pepper.
"Thank you, I'm fine." Peggy could feel her exhaustion rising like the tide, threatening to break over her any moment.
It must have shown on her face, because Pepper put down her own coffee cup and said, "Let me show you where you'll be sleeping."
Pepper led her to another floor, and another suite of rooms. These had such a personal feel to them that Peggy had the distinct sensation of walking into someone's home while they were out. She wavered awkwardly on the front hall rug for a moment, debating whether to remove her shoes, before following Pepper inside.
The floors were hardwood instead of tile; the walls were papered and paneled, in a style Peggy didn't think was much favoured nowadays. The obvious point of focus in the living room was the south wall, which boasted a large fireplace framed by an ornate carved wooden mantelpiece. Facing the fireplace was a low, blocky sofa, flanked by two invitingly curved leather armchairs.
The colours in the room were soft: muted green and pale gold, accented with the occasional touch of turquoise. There was no sign of a television, but a large radio cabinet occupied a place of obvious priority in one corner.
The suite was bright, and clean, and comfortable—but there was something staged about it. She was reminded of a few of the people she'd met at school, who expressed a passion for all things "vintage," and who insisted on buying uncomfortable threadbare furniture and listening to scratchy 45s.
Nevertheless, she said, "It's lovely. Are all of the guest quarters like this?"
Pepper shook her head. "You may have noticed that Tony likes to express his affection for people with gifts instead of words."
Peggy nodded, thinking of her shopping trip with Pepper. Howard had been the same, of course, plying her with drinks and cigarettes because he knew she would never accept more lavish tributes—she had always been wary of creating any expectation of reciprocity.
"When we were redesigning the Tower, he put in a floor for each of the Avengers."
Suddenly the artificiality of the space, its time-capsule feel, made perfect sense. "He meant this for Steve?"
Pepper nodded. "He put a lot of effort into getting the details right—he gutted a classic six on the Upper East Side for the fireplace and some of the fixtures. The bathtub is custom. And I believe the chairs are from his parents' old house."
Peggy looked at the chairs again; the coffee-coloured leather did look a little worn around the corners. She imagined Howard and his young bride sitting in them, on either side of the coffee table, like bookends.
"And what did Steve think of all this?"
"He said it was very nice, but that he liked his neighbourhood and he didn't feel comfortable breaking his lease. I think… it was a lot to expect."
Peggy couldn't help but agree. For Steve, trying to find his footing in a new world, living in such a carefully curated monument to the past would only serve to remind him of everything he'd lost.
"Do you think you'll be okay here?" asked Pepper. "If not, I can find something else."
"Please don't go to any more trouble than you already have. This is more than suitable. It's lovely." As for Steve, it was only one evening, with her there to distract him. She was quite certain he'd survive.
They stepped into the bedroom. Her suitcase, which she'd last seen in the trunk of Barton's car, had apparently been delivered; it stood in the far corner, next to a small chest of drawers. Of course, everything in the room seemed small in comparison to the absolutely enormous bed in the centre. Peggy didn't think she'd ever seen one quite so large.
"That certainly isn't period-appropriate," she observed. "I could sleep on it sideways."
"It was my suggestion. I mean, Steve is so…" Pepper made a wide-spanning gesture.
"And I didn't know if he'd have overnight guests."
Peggy raised an eyebrow. "How many were you expecting him to have at one time?"
The corners of Pepper's mouth quirked upward. "It's possible I was making assumptions. Steve claims that he slept on the couch when he went to visit you."
"He did," Peggy affirmed. She paused for effect before adding, "The first night. And I've had a high-five already, thank you."
"I'll try to restrain myself."
"I… Steve said he would come by once he'd been discharged. He'll be able to get in here all right, if I'm asleep?"
"Full clearance," Pepper assured her.
"Were you able to speak with Tony before you left?"
"He woke up for a bit, but he was… it wasn't a good time." Pepper was obviously a bit embarrassed at having bared so much earlier. "Do you want to come with me when I go back? It'll be early in the morning."
"I'll have JARVIS wake you up. And you can ask him to get me, or Natasha, if there's anything you need. Okay?"
"Perfect, thank you."
Peggy had never been a great hugger—it simply hadn't been the done thing in the Carter household—but she sensed, in that moment, that it was what Pepper needed. Wordlessly, she opened her arms; Pepper gave a grateful nod and stepped forward, folding herself into Peggy's embrace.
"There now," murmured Peggy, trying to remember exactly what it was one said at moments like this. "There. It's all right."
Once Pepper had left, JARVIS talked Peggy through connecting her laptop to the tower's wifi. She checked her email, mostly out of force of habit; Steve was, presumably, either still at the hospital or en route, and Pepper was here. Charlotte had sent an e-card titled "Happy Spanksgiving," which Peggy reckoned she'd open another time.
After changing into her nightgown, Peggy had a pleasant, if somewhat odd, discussion with JARVIS about her preferred sleeping temperature, ambient light and sound levels, and method of waking. He apparently had several thousand different alarm tones, ranging from gentle birdsong to a klaxon that made her teeth rattle.
The massive bed was quite comfortable, and she sank almost immediately into a deep, dreamless sleep. This, however, lasted only a short while; she emerged more wakeful than ever, and desperate for a cup of tea.
The suite's kitchenette had a gas range and a variety of non-perishable staples. Most of them were modern versions of products she remembered—not with nostalgia, either. She doubted that Tony had any particular fondness for potted meats, so she could only assume that this was a continuation of the furnishings and the architecture—a somewhat misguided attempt to make Steve feel at home.
There was neither tea nor a kettle, but after some digging in the cupboards she managed to locate a small saucepan, a plastic bag of powdered milk, and a jar of Ovaltine. It would have to do; she wasn't about to wake Pepper in the middle of the night to ask for something so trivial. She mixed up the milk and set it over a low flame.
Steaming mug in hand, she wandered around the suite, peeking into cupboards. She was inspecting the wireless set when a loud chime nearly startled her out of her wits.
She'd already drawn breath to ask JARVIS about it, when she realized the sound had come from her open laptop—Steve's FlagUp folder.
She sat down and clicked on the mailbox icon, squinting at the bright screen. There were two new items in the folder: a video, titled Touching Reunion, and a photo, titled Good Night Darling.
She clicked on the video first. It was a grainy, poorly lit shot of a couple, kissing madly on a sidewalk. It wasn't until they broke apart that Peggy recognized her own coat and scarf, and Steve's sweater.
Her first thought was that perhaps Barton had been following them that night, after all. But why would Steve have this, and why would he send it to her without any sort of explanation?
She closed the video and clicked on the photo. It loaded a second later: an empty hospital bed.
Spots of blood on the pillow.
Good Night Darling.
"JARVIS!" she called out. "Tell Agent Romanoff I need her. Now!"